The Effectiveness of Environmental Impact Assessment in Urban Planning and Development

中国环境学会  2011年 03月16日

  A Case Study of the State of Washington.     Rubin Yu, Ph.D. Responsible Person  Northwest Chinese American Environmental Protection Association13822 SE 43rd Street, Bellevue, Washington 98006, USA

  I.  Introduction

    In the past thirty years, the State of Washington has experienced an unprecedented population growth. Urban development and suburban sprawl have brought a great impact on environment and natural resources.  Hundreds of acres of critical wetlands and wildlife habitat conservation area have been forever lost to urban development.  Traffic congestion has clogged the highways and fouled the air; sources for clean drinking water have been poisoned by increased pollution; flooding and landslides have become yearly events in the areas of new development.   Consequently, the environmental impact assessment has become a focus in urban development and planning.
  In the early 1960s, the environmental movement in the United States emerged.  Since then environmental protection has become an essential element in the land use planning and urban development control system in the State of Washington.   Since 1960 the State of Washington has enacted a number of land use/development and environmental laws.  In March 1996, the State  integrated the planning and environmental laws, specifically, the law mandates that environmental impact assessment to be a focus of  in  urban development and planning activities.      
  The objective of this paper is to study and evaluate the effectiveness of the environmental impact assessment in urban development and land use planning system of the State of Washington.  Specifically, this study includes an examination and evaluation of the State’s most recent efforts in the integration of environmental laws, environmental impact assessment process, with urban development and land use planning regulations.
  The content of this study includes identification, discussion and evaluation of the key ingredients of the federal and state environmental laws related to environmental impact assessment in urban development and planning in the State of Washington. 


  During the past decades, the United States Congress legislatures have enacted an important body of laws intended to protect environmental and natural resources.  The most important law has been the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) of 1969.

  A.  NEPA Review
  The National Environmental Policy Act requirements are very similar to those of  the Washington State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA),  an environmental assessment is  used  by the lead agency to determine the extent of environmental impacts  associated  with  a  project (with federal funds).  Though the lead agency is responsible for the content of the impact assessment, the applicant of the project may be asked to contribute extensive information.  If the project is determined to  be  environmentally significant,  an environmental impact statement (EIS) is required. If the NEPA lead agency determines a project will not significantly impact the environment, that agency issues a Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI)

  B. NEPA Environmental Impact Assessment ProcessThe NEPA environmental Impact Assessment shall includes the following process:
  Action – what is the proposed action?
  Categorical Exemptions- is this action exempted for environmental review under the guidelines.
  Lead Agency – identify the organization leading the environmental review.
  Environmental Checklist –  if the proposed action is not exempted, the lead agency will prepare an environmental checklist to assess the environmental impact of the  Proposed action.   
        Threshold Determination – based on the findings of the environmental Checklist, the lead agency Will determine whether the impact of the proposed action is nonsignificant or significant.
     Determination of Nonsignificance – the lead agency prepare a document, “determination of nonsignificance” and issues a Finding of No Significant  Impact (FONSI) Determinatin of Significance/Scoping – the lead agency prepare a document, “determination on Significance and solicit the public and other related  Agencies for comments of scope the environmental impact Assessment.
        Environmental Impact Statement – after scoping process, the lead agency will prepare an  environmental impact statement to assess the impacts of the  proposed action for public to review.
  Appeals – public or any person can appeal the environmental impact statement because of the     document is inadequate or other reasons.C. Federal Agencies Involved in Environmental Impact AssessmentSeveral federal agencies have the responsibility and legal authority in environmental impact assessment for both federal or state projects.  The following are the divisions of their areas of responsibilities:
  U.S. Army Corps of Engineer: discharges into “water of the U.S. (including wetlands), construction activities in “navigable waters.”
  Federal Emergency Management Agency:  activities proposed in floodplains.
  U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services or the National Marine Fisheries Services: activities affecting historical and archaeological resources.
  Federal Highway Administration:  transportation projects proposed in recreation areas and parks.
  U.S. Department of Agriculture, Soil Conservation Service:  activities resulting in the conversion of farmlands.
  National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration: projects in the coastal zone.
  U.S. Environmental protection Agency:  Cleanup of hazardous waste sites, solid or hazardous waste generation storage, transportation of disposal.


  In  1971,  two years after the federal government adopted the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA),  Washington State adopted  the  State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) to  protect its environment and natural resources.  The  heart of SEPA is an environmental review process for the purpose of identifying the environmental  impacts  of  a  proposed project and the measures to mitigate the impacts.  The Washington environmental impact assessment is centered in the State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA).  SEPA is designed to evaluate the environmental impacts of a proposed project and identify methods to reduce the impacts.  SEPA is being  implemented in conjunction with other environmental and land use/development laws of the federal, state and local governments.     In recent years the State has integrated environmental laws with land use and development regulations, an EIS must address impacts of a project on community plans and  development policies and vice versa.
  The  SEPA environmental impact review process is about same as the federal one, it starts when someone submits a permit application  to an agency (city or county) or when an agency proposes to take some official action.   Prior to taking any action (issuing permits,  approvals, etc.) on a nonexempt project,  agencies must  follow specific procedures to assure that  appropriate consideration has been given to the environment.
  The severity of potential environmental impacts associated with a proposed project will determine whether an environmental impact statement (EIS) is required.  If an environmental impact statement is not issued, a determination of nonsignificance must be issued.  After completion of the  EIS or determination of nonsignificance, agencies may act upon the project  application or other approval required for the project.  Administrative or legal appeals and challenges concerning SEPA compliance must be linked to specific governmental action and be brought in a timely manner.
  In 1976, the first SEPA Guidelines were adopted to implement  SEPA.   The Guidelines established a standard  process for  the identification and evaluation of potential  adverse environmental  impacts of a proposal.   Both the Act and the Guidelines have been amended several times over the years.
  A.  Scope of Environmental Impact Review – Environmental ChecklistThe State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA)requires all governmental agencies to consider the environmental impacts of a proposal before making decisions. An environmental impact statement (EIS) must be prepared for all proposals with probable significant adverse impacts on the quality of the environment. The purpose of the checklist is to provide information to help you and the agency identify impacts from your proposal (and to reduce or avoid impacts from the proposal, if it can be done) and to help the agency decide whether an EIS is required.  The agency shall give a brief, complete description of your proposal, including the proposed uses and the size of the project and site.   The following the environmental elements in the checklist: 
  1.  Earth
  2.  Air
  3.  Water:  Surface Water, Groundwater, Water Runoff (including storm water)
  4.  Plants
  5.  Animals
  6.  Energy and Natural Resources
  7.  Environmental Health: health hazards and safety, Noise
  8.  Land and Shoreline Use
  9.  Housing
  10. Aesthetics
  11.  Light and Glare
  12. Recreation
  13. Historic and Cultural Preservation
  14. Transportation
  15. Public Services
  16. Utilities
  General Contents of Environmental Impact Statement (EIS)Under the State SEPA guidlines an Environmental Impact Statement should cover thefollowing contents:

        1. Introduction 
  2.  Project Description
  3.  Environmental Setting
  4.  Summary of Findings
  5.  Impacts and Significant Impacts
  6.  Unavoidable Impacts
  7.  Cumulative Impacts
  8.  Economic and Social Effects9.  Mitigations 10. Impacts Can Not Be Mitigated11. Benefits and Cost Determination
  IV. ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT ASSESSMENT IN LAND USE PLANNING AND URBAN DEVELOPMENTIn State of Washington land use planning and urban development activites are subject to environmental impact assessment.  On the other hand, land use plans are the foundation for environmental impact assessment in urban development activites.  Therefore, The environmental impact assessment is a part of the network for implementation of federal, state, and local environmental  laws and land use/development regulations. The following are the major Washington State land use and development control  laws:
  A.  Growth Management Ac
  In  1990,  the  State  of Washington enacted  the  Growth Management  Act  (GMA)  to  address  growth  and  environmental problems.   The law requires the local governments to develop a comprehensive plan and adopt development regulations which must be consistent  with  the comprehensive  plan.   The  law  also requires  protection  of  environmentally sensitive  areas  and  conservation of natural resources.  GMA encourages development in urban areas where adequate public facilities and services exist or can be provided in an efficient manner.  It also reduces the inappropriate conversion of undeveloped land into sprawling, low-density development.
  The objectives of the law are:
  1.      To prevent sprawl by defining urban growth areas and providing  open space and low-density    rural development at the perimeter of urban areas.
  2.      To  prohibit development that requires or encourages urbanization  of lands not designated for urban  use in the comprehensive plan.
  3.      To the extent consistent with the protection of open  space  and environmentally sensitive lands,  require in-filling  of existing urbanized areas with  available  public service and facility capacity prior  to developing lands identified for future urban growth.

  The Act requires all cities and counties in the state to plan for conservation of important timber,  agricultural and mineral  resources lands,  and protection of critical areas.  Critical areas under GMA include:
  1.       Wetlands
  2.       Aquifer Recharge Areas
  3.       Frequently Flooded Areas
  4.       Geologically Hazardous Areas
  5.       Fish and Wildlife Habitat Conservation Areas
  In adoption of land plans and development standars local governments are required to go through environmental review, in most cases, an environmental impact statement is required.  Once these plans and standards are adopted, they become the criteria for environmental review and environmental impact assessment.  
  B.  Shoreline Management Act and Environmental Impact Assesment
  The 1971 session of the Washington State Legislature expressed  a  strong concern that the shorelines in the  state are among the most valuable and fragile of the state's natural  resources and that the state should be concerned  about their protection and management.   As a result, the Washington State Shoreline Management Act was passed.
  The  basic  intent of this Act is to protect the  public interest in the state's shorelines and, at the same time, to recognize  and  protect private property  rights  consistent with  the public interest.   The Act's policies are directed toward the enhancement of public use and enjoyment of shorelines rather than restriction of their use.
  The  law  provides for both the state and local  governments to engage in a coordinated effort for the planning and administration of the Act.   In addition, it encourages full opportunity  for citizen involvement in permit decisions  as well as in preparing the plan itself. 
  Under  the Act,  the local governments have the primary  responsibility  for initiating the planning program and administering the regulatory requirements of the Act with the State Department  of  Ecology  acting  in a  supportive  and  review capacity.
  When adopt a shoreline management plan the local government must go through the SEPA environmental impact assessment.  Once the plan adopted, it will become a guide for environemtal impact assessment for projects within the planning area
  C. Local Land Use and Development Control System
  Land use planning  and  development control has been the  responsibility of the local governments in the U.S.A.   Under the authority of the state laws,  counties and cities have developed a complex land use planning and development control system.   Environmental protection is a major element of the system.

  1.  Comprehensive Plan
  A  comprehensive  plan is to act as a guide for development, redevelopment (urban renewal), environmental protection  and  the foundation upon which all  land  use and development decisions are to be based.
  The  comprehensive plan of a county or a city that is required  by  Washington State laws shall consist  of  land use, housing, capital facilities, utilities, environmental protection, and transportation elements.  The comprehensive plan may include many other elements, such as energy, open space,  recreation, natural resources, public services,  urban design, redevelopment and the like.
  Washington State law requires that a comprehensive plan  shall designate urban growth areas.   Development shall  be permitted within the urban growth  area  only.  The urban growth areas are to include areas and densities sufficient  to permit the urban growth that is  projected to  occur  in  the  community for  a  succeeding  20-year  period.   An urban growth area is the planning area  for future development of a community.
  When adopt  a comprehensive plan the local government must go through the SEPA environmental impact assessment.  Once the plan adopted, it will become a guide for environemtal impact assessment for projects within the planning area

  2.  Comprehensive Plan Implementation Tools and Techniques
  The comprehensive plan implementation tools and techniques are the most important to land use planning and development control.  In Washington, as well as many other states in the U.S.,  zoning  and  subdivision control are the  basic tools  of  the local governments for  implementing  their comprehensive plans. 

  Zoning changes and development under subdivision regulations are subject to SEPA environmental impact assessment.
  a. Zoning  is the classification of  land according  to use.   The  typical zoning ordinance divides a  community into  districts  with various land uses,  such  as  residential,  commercial,  industrial  and public facilities.  The  text  of the zoning ordinance contains  requirements and  standards  related  to the use  and  development  of property  for  each  zoning  district.   These  generally include: the uses permitted in each district; minimum lot sizes  and maximum density;  height,  yard and  setbacks; bulk  limits; and  parking  requirements.    Additional standards  may  cover  a wide range of  issues,  such  as landscaping,  buffering, architectural design,  signs and  solar access.
  b. Subdivision  regulations  are the important state mandated technique for assuring that the division  of  land occurs in a logical,  efficient manner and that site specific  services and improvements,  such as  roads,  open space,  sewer,  water, drainage,  utilities and community facilities are provided to a new development.  Typically, a  local  subdivision  ordinance  contains  a  number  of standards  relating  to utility services  and  facilities which must be provided by the  developer.
  C.  Integration of Land Use/Development and Environmental LawsIn 1995, the State of Washington legislature enacted the Land Use Regulatory Reform Bill (ESHB 1724).  The bill calls for integration and consolidation of the state’s land use and environmental laws.  Under this bill, a new Land Use Commission was created to help and guide the integration and consolidation of the state’s land use and environmental laws for the next three yeas.  To reach this goal, the commission is charged with evaluating the effectiveness of the Growth Management Act, Environmental Policy Act, Shoreline Management Act, and other state land use planning, environmental and permitting statutes.

  1. The law will enhance predictability 
        In the past, the development review process has been perceived as unpredictable.  Sometimes, rules often change in the mid-stream of the project.  Many developments require large initial investment, but they have uncertain outcomes.  The new law will provide more predictability.

  2. Rely on Decisions Made at the Planning Stage         
  Development review will be more reliant on comprehensive plans and sub-area plans developed under GMA.  The ability to restrict a development during the project review stage will be more limited.  Therefore, under the new law, decisions on land use, density, and public facilities are now firmly established at the comprehensive plan stage.

  3. Streamline Project Review
  The new law will reduce the length of the development review process and the opportunities for public participation at the project review stage.  The law will eliminate duplication in regulatory requirements, and it will establish a straight forward process and standards for land use appeals to  the Superior Court.

  V  STATE  ENVIRONMENTAL PERMITS FOR WASHINGTONThe Washington state government has regulatory jurisdiction  related  to the following environmental permits.  Before issue a permit, a SEPA environmental review is required:  

  A. Water  Resources

         a. Water Right Permit
         b. Public Water Supply Approval
         c. Water Well Construction and Operator's License
         d. Reservoir Permit

  B. Water Quality

         a. State Waste Discharge Permit
         b.  National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) Permit
         c. Wastewater Plant Operator's Certificate
         d.  Temporary  Modification  of Water  Quality  Criteria  (Water Quality    Modification)
         e.  On-Site Sewage Disposal Permit (Septic System)
         f.  Accreditation of Environmental Laboratories

  C. Aquatic Resources

         a.  Coastal Zone Management Certification
         b.  Hydraulic Project Approval (HPA)
         c.  Fish Screen Requirements

  D. Wetlands
         a.  Federal Regulations
              The principal federal laws that regulate activities in  wetlands are Sections  404 and 401 of the Clean Water Act  and Section 10 of the River and Harbor Act.  Other federal  laws include the National Environmental    Policy Act, the Federal Water Pollution Control Act, the Coastal  ZoneManagement Act, and provision of the 1985 Food Security Act known as "Swampbuster".
         b.  State Regulations
              The  primary state regulations that affect  development  activities in and   Project Approval, the State Water Pollution Control Act, the State Environmental Act, and the Floodplain Management program.

         c.  Local Regulations
              Many local jurisdictions also have laws that may affect projects in or  adjacent to wetlands.  The most common  local  means of regulating development in wetlands areas is the local Shoreline Master Program.

  E.  Land Resources

  The State Department of Natural Resources, under the direction  of  the Commissioner of Public  Lands,  administers many  permits regulating the use of over 12.5 million  acres of state and private land.   Forest practices  enforcement, surface  mine regulation,  and administration of other  land resource permits, are among the Department's responsibilities.
         a.  Forest Practices Approval
         b.  Surface Mine Permit

  F. Air Quality

  Air  pollution control in Washington is based upon a set of local, state and federal laws and regulations involving three levels of government.
         a.  New Source Construction Approval
         b.  Air Contaminant Source Registration
         c.  Prevention of Significant Deterioration (PSD)
         d.  Air Quality Permit (Open Burning)
         e.  Solid  Fuel  Burning Device Standards (Wood  Stoves, Inserts

  G. Hazardous and Dangerous Solid Waste

  The State Department of Ecology has several programs devoted to managing waste to protect public health and the environment, and to promote waste reduction and  recycling. The following provisions cover the state's regulations dealing with hazardous, dangerous, and solid waste.
         a.  Hazardous  Waste Release Notification (Spills or Release)
         b.  Dangerous Waste Designation
         c.  Dangerous Waste Permit(s) (treatment,  storage, disposal)
         d.  Underground Storage Tank Notification Requirement
         e.  Certification of Operators of  Solid Waste Incinerator and Landfill    Facilities

  H. Pesticides

  Anyone  interested in starting a business that  involves selling  or using pesticides may be required to obtain a license. 
         a.  Commercial Pesticide Applicator's License
         b.  Private Commercial Applicator's License
         c.  Public Pesticide Operator's License

  I. Livestock

         a.  Public Livestock Market License
         b.  Animal  Feeding  Operations - NPDES and  State  Wide Discharge             Permit


  An effective environmental impact assessment system must be built upon  urban planning and development principles and networks.  In the United States, including the  State of Washington,   environmental protection is a required element of urban planning and development control system.  The development of the system has come a long way in the State of Washington and many other states.
  The major forces which shape the urban and environmental planning system in the U.S. have been the voices of the citizens of the country.   In the State of Washington, the people have been highly sensitive to environmental changes.  There has been a great emphasis on environmental protection in the State of Washington.  To reflect its people’s values in preserving the state’s environmental and natural resources, the state and local governments have developed a sound urban development and environmental protection system.
  The main results and findings of this study includes that 1. environmental laws must be implemented in conjunction with urban development and planning regulations, 2. the environmental review process provides a tool for prevention of significant environmental impacts which is more important than mitigation, 3. the local governments and people are the major players in environmental review process.   
  Based upon the above described analysis and evaluation, the study concludes that the environmental impact assessment process in urban development and planning appears to be effective in the State of Washington. This is because the fact that the public is highly involved  in the environmental impact assessment review process and the environmental review system is sound.
  The  Washington  environmental impact review  system reflects  a well  coordinated  effort with federal and  local  agencies. Although most of the environmental permits are issued at the state level,  the process begins with local cities and counties.   The  local land use and development control system, including such elements as comprehensive planning, zoning,  subdivision and building regulations,  environmental review process, shoreline management regulations, and noise ordinances, has reinforced the state environmental permit system.
  The environmental impact assessment system of the State of Washington reveals three important characteristics: 1. the environmental review must be implemented in conjunction with local land use and development regulations, 2. the environmental review process provides a tool for prevention of significant environmental impacts which is more important than mitigation, 3. local governments and the people are the major players in environmental protection and the environmental permit system. 



  1.      Washington Administration Code, 1972, updated version.

  2.      Washington Revised Code, 1992, updated version.

  3.      Washington State Clean Air Act, 1991.

  4.      Washington State Environmental Policy Act, 1969.

  5.      Washington State Shoreline Management Act, 1971.

  6.      Washington State Growth Management Act, 1990.

  7.      Washington State Land Use Regulatory Reform Bill (ESHB)

  The State of Washington has been a leading state in land use planning and environmental protection.  The urban development control and environmental protection system of the Washington has proven that an effective environmental protection  must build  on the foundation of  urban planning and land use control, such as growth management, comprehensive planning, zoning, subdivision, building and other land use and development control devices.


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